French cinema giant, Jean-Luc Godard, dies aged 91

Jean-Luc Godard -- who has died at 91 -- was the rebel spirit who drove the French New Wave, firing out a volley of films in the 1960s that rewrote the rules of cinema.

French cinema giant, Jean-Luc Godard, dies aged 91
A 1988 photo of Franco-Swiss filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, who died "peacefully" on September 13, 2022 at his home in Switzerland, his family said in a statement. (Photo by AFP)

Between “Breathless” (“A Bout de Souffle”) in 1960 and the student protests of 1968, Godard exhilarated audiences as he shook the film world with his technical innovations and savage, occasionally lyrical, satires.

Sometimes working on two movies at the same time, he ranged over crime, politics and prostitution in a burst of creative energy that would inspire two generations of directors.

Godard’s witty aphorisms like “a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end — but not necessarily in that order”, became lodestars for filmmakers from Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson.

French cinema: 7 Jean-Luc Godard films to watch

But the flame that had burned so bright in the 1960s veered off into revolutionary politics and Maoist obscurantism in the 1970s, and he came to be seen almost as a tragicomic figure.

Godard spent several years experimenting with video before returning to commercial filmmaking — of a kind — in 1979.

Modern prophet

But the freshness was gone and critics accused him of becoming too elliptical, with some branding his early films misogynist.

Yet the increasingly reclusive Godard persevered down his singular path, before reinventing himself in his later years as a gnomic cigar-chomping prophet.

He shot his critically acclaimed “Film Socialisme” on board the Costa Concordia cruise ship in 2009, declaring that capitalism was heading for the rocks. When the ship ran aground three years later, it wasn’t just his small band of disciples who treated him as a visionary.

Born in Paris into a well-to-do Franco-Swiss family on December 3, 1930, Godard was lucky enough to spend World War II at Nyons in neutral Switzerland, returning to the French capital in 1949 to study ethnology at the Sorbonne.

But his real education was in the little cinemas of the Latin Quarter where he first ran into Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer, all future luminaries of the French cinema.

He fell in love with American action cinema and began writing criticism under the pseudonym “Hans Lucas” with Truffaut, Rivette and Rohmer for small magazines like the “Cahiers du Cinema”, where they plotted to revolutionise the art.

After a failed attempt to make his first film in America, he went to work on a dam in Switzerland and saved enough money to make a film about it, “Operation Concrete” (1954).

It helped lay the foundation for his rapid ascent that would see him hailed as the leader of the French New Wave when “Breathless” was released in 1960.

‘The Picasso of cinema’

That swaggering story of a small-time crook on the run who romances a young American in Paris was a major landmark in French cinema, heralding the arrival of a generation of irreverent young film-makers determined to break with the past.

So big was its impact that Truffaut called Godard cinema’s Picasso, someone who had “sown chaos… and made everything possible”. As often with Godard, their friendship later turned sour, with Truffaut branding him a “shit” after the pair fell out in 1973.

By shooting on the fly in outdoor locations and improvising endlessly, Godard rewrote the rulebook and helped popularise the idea of the director as “auteur”, the creative force behind everything on the screen.

“Breathless” also gave the first big break to Jean-Paul Belmondo, who would later star in Godard’s masterpiece and most personal film “Pierrot le Fou” (1965), which explored the pain of his break-up with the Danish actress Anna Karina.

From the start, Godard’s career was dogged by controversy. “Le Petit Soldat” (1960), with its references to the Algerian war, was banned by the French authorities for three years and “Une Femme Mariee” (A married woman, 1964) had its title changed from “La Femme Mariee” by censors concerned that its adulterous heroine might be taken for the typical French wife.

But after “Weekend” (1967), a gory examination of the obsession with cars scattered with surrealistic traffic accidents, his work too often appeared self-indulgent.

Indeed, Godard became something of an intellectual oddity, emerging every few years from his bolthole in Rolle on the shores of Lake Geneva to lob a verbal grenade or two.

It was this tragic, cartoonish Godard on the slide who features in “Godard Mon Amour”, the 2017 comedy about him by Michel Hazanavicius, the Oscar-winning maker of “The Artist”.

But by then Godard was having the last laugh, with his reputation somewhat restored by a series of low-budget metaphorical films that questioned our image-saturated world.

“Film is over,” he told The Guardian in a rare interview in 2011, recanting his oft-quoted maxim that “photography is truth, and the cinema is truth 24 times per second”.

“With mobile phones, everyone is now an auteur,” he said.

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French foie gras shortage forces farmers to take radical step: Using lady geese

Foie gras pate, the consummate delicacy of French holiday tables, might be harder to find this year and certainly pricier due to a bird flu outbreak that ravaged farms across the west and south last winter.

French foie gras shortage forces farmers to take radical step: Using lady geese

After millions of ducks and geese were culled to halt the epidemic, some farmers say they are having to take an unprecedented step — using females to produce the luxury treat.

The taste is the same, but female livers are much smaller and harder to work with, and the impact on a producer’s bottom line is inescapable.

“It was double or nothing, but either we just sat and waited — which is not in our nature — or we try to offer a product that respects our consumers,” said Benjamin Constant in Samatan, southwest France.

President of the foie gras marketing board for the Gers department, Constant warned that it was only a stop-gap measure, especially for higher-quality fresh foie gras.

Most livers have veins that must be removed, but those of female livers are much bigger and require more effort to extract, which puts off clients seeking the smooth texture of fresh foie gras that is either seared in a pan, or used to make pate.

“A significant amount cannot be sold fresh, which penalises the producers who sell at public markets,” Constant said.

Jacques Candelon, who has been raising ducks in the rolling plains of nearby Sarrant since 1998, said this is the first year the majority of his 26,000 birds are females, which are usually reserved to produce meat for export.

“80 percent are females — it was either that or nothing,” the 52-year-old told AFP at his farm, dressed head to toe in protective gear to prevent any contamination of his animals.

Bigger stretch

Animal rights activists have long denounced the force-feeding of ducks and geese to make foie gras, calling it an unnecessary cruelty despite producers’ claims of introducing measures to make the process more humane.

France remains the world’s largest producer and consumer, usually raising some 30 million ducks alone each year, even though some French cities have banned it from official functions.

But two brutal bird flu outbreaks in recent years decimated flocks as authorities imposed culls, with just 21 million ducks raised in 2021, a number expected to plunge to 15 million for 2022, according to the CIFOG producers’ association.

More problematic was the impact on breeding farms, which found themselves with only scant numbers of male chicks to offer producers this year.

Labeyrie, the brand that dominates sales among mass retailers, expects a shortage of 30 to 40 percent this holiday season, by far the most important time of the year for the sector.

Spiralling energy and feed prices, fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, will also make foie gras more of a stretch for family budgets.

“There will be enough for the holidays but in limited quantities,” CIFOG director Marie-Pierre Pe told AFP in September. “We’re hoping that people are going to be reasonable and will share what little there is.” 

‘Big effort’

Old habits die hard, however, and at the bustling weekly duck market at Samatan, a foie gras bastion near Toulouse in the heart of Gers, much of the crowd wanted only the pale, plump male livers.

“Females are much, much smaller and after force-feeding, the livers are smaller and less attractive visually,” said Didier Villate, a veterinarian who has overseen the Samatan market for over 40 years.

Next to a tray of glistening male livers, many of the female livers had red blotches with thick dark veins, “which is unfortunately something we find quite often” even though it doesn’t change the taste or texture, Villate said.

“Clients are surprised, so we have to make a big effort to explain to consumers that there is no danger — It’s purely visual, you can buy and eat them just the same,” he said.

But male or female, prices have spiked to between €55 and €60 a kilogramme, or “€15 to €20 more than normal,” said Constant, calling 2022 “catastrophic for the sector.”

For Gilberte Bru, who like dozens of others rushed in at the market’s opening whistle to stock up for the holidays, the decision was easy — she picked the male livers.

“Yes, because they are bigger,” she said.